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Assembling the family history puzzle

Genealogy experts Matthew and April Leigh Helm trace the process for discovering your family’s ancestral roots.
Matt Helm's grandmother sits in the lap of his great-grandfather. In the background is the land patent granting him land in Illinois in 1840.
Matt Helm's grandmother sits in the lap of his great-grandfather. In the background is the land patent granting him land in Illinois in 1840.
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Who were our parents’ parents? Where did their families come from? What were the important events in their lives? For many of us, tracking down our ancestors has become a rewarding if challenging pastime. The Internet and e-mail can help, giving us access from our living rooms to huge amounts of information. But how do you get started with genealogical research? Matthew and April Helm, authors of “Genealogy Online for Dummies” and creators of “Helm’s Genealogy Toolbox,” provide some tips.

Researching genealogy is like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. After you have one piece (an ancestor) in place, you need to find two pieces (your ancestor’s parents) to fit next to it. Perhaps it’s the enjoyment people get from solving puzzles that makes family history research one of the most popular hobbies in the world.

You need to take a few steps to start down the right path in your genealogical research. First, find a general book on genealogy. Or, look at a site on the Internet that provides tips on getting started. “Getting Started in Genealogy and Family History” is a good place to visit. Here are other steps to help you begin your research:

Talk to your relatives. Find out what they know about your ancestors and any stories about the origins of your family.

Find documents and objects. Be on the lookout for photographs, certificates, government documents, letters, diaries, mortgage papers, and military records.

Focus on a specific person or family line when you’re gathering information. This helps you stay organized so you use your time wisely.

Locate mailing lists, surname boards, Web sites, and other Internet resources that can assist you. It’s a good idea to monitor mailing lists, newsgroups, and message boards before you post your first message so you’re sure that you’re following the resource’s guidelines.

Once you complete these steps, you are ready to leap into researching genealogical resources online and offline.

There are thousands of genealogical resources that are available on the Internet. Here are just a few of the things that you’ll encounter:

Queries. Queries are questions about topics you are researching. They can be questions about a certain person or place. Generally, you post queries to mailing lists, Web pages, and genealogical newsgroups.

Lookups. Lookups are when a genealogist offers to find and copy information for another genealogist. The information may be in a book at a local library or a record from an archive.

Search engines. Search engines allow you to search the full text of many Web sites. Genealogical search engines are particularly good resources to use when you are looking for information on a specific individual.

Online databases. Many sites contain online databases that you can search for free or a fee. These databases contain indexes or the full-text of resources such as government records, obituaries, newspapers, church records, and city directories.

People finders. People finders (also called directories) are sites that help you find e-mail addresses, mailing addresses, and telephone numbers. They are especially handy when you lose the e-mail address of a fellow researcher.

Because you won’t find everything you need for your genealogy online, you’ll need to research offline too. Here are some offline resources:

Libraries and genealogical societies. Local libraries have community histories and some have unpublished genealogies. Genealogical societies help you meet other genealogists and help you find records.

Family History Centers. Family History Centers are local branches of the Family History Library maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They enable you to research the vast holdings of the library including its computerized indexes (such as

Courthouses and archives. Courthouses and archives house original documents that are key to your research. Such records include censuses, vital records (birth, marriage, death certificates), court records, wills and land records.

Professional researchers. If you can’t find information on an ancestor or don’t have time to research, then a professional researcher may help. Get an estimate of the cost for research and carefully review the researcher’s credentials before hiring someone.

As information on your ancestors begins pouring in, you’ll need someplace to store it. There are several genealogical computer database programs available that help you organize your findings and create reports you can send to others or take on research trips. Some programs allow you to store digitized copies of key documents too. To use the multimedia capabilities of these programs, you’ll need access to a scanner and imaging software.

When you’re ready to publish your research, there are programs available to help you create Web pages and utilities that place the contents of your genealogical database online. Of course, when you get to this step, make sure you maintain the privacy of others. In addition to tools to help you organize your research, there are a number of research aids on CD-ROM. These CD-ROMs contain indexes to key resources and, in some cases, digitized copies of actual records.

Genealogy is a rewarding hobby that brings you into contact with people from around the country, and even the world. Here are a few last pieces of advice to make your search more fruitful:

Use a variety of online and offline tools. You increase your chances of finding new and useful information if you use more than just a couple of Web sites or resources in your research, not to mention that using multiple resources increases your chances of finding additional Web sites and other avenues of research.

Report your success to family members and research partners. Family members often become interested in genealogy when they receive reports on your progress through e-mail or at family functions. Also, consider publishing the fruits of your labor either in a book or online. This helps other researchers with similar interests find and contact you. But remember to always respect the privacy of family members when reporting your successes and publishing information.

Develop a research network. Information you place on the Internet may translate into real-world contacts that help you further your research. Also, look for opportunities to join research groups or form partnerships. Find other genealogists (at work, through organizations or online) who will share their research experiences with you. Share your own research experience and information with others. Consider providing a “random act of genealogical kindness” where you help someone even though they may not be researching anything you’re interested in. Building a good network is, in some ways, like having a second family — one where members help each other along the path to research success.